And the winner is…
Thank you to all of those who submitted their wonderful shorts in this category. I enjoyed reading them. This was a truly difficult decision as I had some awesome entries. But here is my choice for the winner of the Contemporary Fantasy genre!
Read on for our winning story “The Giant Project” by Kirstin Pulioff.
“The Giant Project”
by Kirstin Pulioff
The final flakes of crimson paint floated to the ground. Frank clapped his hands one last time, erasing all evidence of his rushed touch ups. He had spent months on this project, but insecurities kept him tinkering on small adjustments. Now, with all the pieces gleaming and the crooked wires straightened, it looked right. It had taken months, but he had finally done it, created a world unique to itself.
A web of meal encased a dark plastic container. Filled to the brim with tiny ferns, bromeliads and herbs, the spiders, newts, and rodents scurried beneath variegated vines and twisted branches. A rotating heat-bulb inched along a suspended wire on the container’s lid to mimic the changing light patterns through the days and seasons. Metal rods ran horizontally through carefully drilled holes underneath the main chamber, recreating the thermal heat fluctuations of the seasons and days. This assisted in regulating the water cycle within the ecosystem, recycling the water through specific moisture devices and evaporation. After tedious hours spent adjusting and recalculating, he finally found the right balance for sustainability in both the desert areas and the moisture rich swamp.
He twisted and turned, awkwardly inspecting himself in the mini mirrors of metal surrounding his world. His reflection bounded back, a warbled image. A goofy grin dominated his face. Exaggerated, almost cartoonish, it stood out against his square jaw. Underneath carefully parted black hair, and wide, sleepy eyes, a blob of red streaked down his cheek. In his rush, he had missed one spot of paint.
Pointed laughter assaulted him as a group of girls squeezed past him, swishing through the swinging doors. His cheeks warmed in embarrassment as he looked through his project’s canister to the room beyond. The rush of bodies and noise contradicted the simplicity of his created world.
His thick fingers lingered on his cheek as he studied the door in front of him. At the top, a small translucent window afforded him a glimpse into the room. The distortion of the glass clouded any details, but a rush of shadows raced from edge to edge. The normally quiet auditorium, like his heart, raced.
When they moved here, his mother promised him it would be easier. Easier than living with the giants’ bullying or the constant condemnation of the humans from their previous homes. Castle Grove, a community of half-breeds, should have offered an escape of ridicule. It should have been a community of understanding. But it wasn’t.
It wasn’t as if he was the only ‘different’ student, they all were. This was a magnet school designed for the outliers of society, the blends of monster and human, the kids that magic just didn’t like- too different to blend in with the humans, and not different enough to be with the full bloods. But even here, he stood out.
As the only descendent of the giants, his tall height, broad shoulders, and stature made him stand out. Clumsy, and slow, his physical attributes did not translate into any natural athletic abilities. Too slow for sports, not coordinated enough for music, his natural segregation into a crowd slipped away, tossing him into the ambiguity of seclusion. Deemed mediocre, he disappeared under their disinterest. He quickly learned that silence also bullied.
The year culminated in his mind. The whispered mocks and taunts, and echoes of regret panged his heart. No more. Two words, taped to the green doors of the auditorium would change that. Two little words held the world of possibility and the power of change: Science Fair.
The terrarium wobbled in his hands, difficult to balance between the metal cage, the swishing water, and the scurrying of feet from inside. In an awkward attempt to open the door, he pressed up against the handles with his back and leaned, careful not to drop his year’s work.
His breath caught as he stepped into the room. The auditorium was transformed. The normal set of bleachers and bench seating had been replaced with rows of table. Tables lined with pristine white linens, and small placard boards. Decorative banners with scientists, natural wonders, and atoms lined the walls, and the subdued theatrical lighting was replaced with bright white lights. With a few deliberate changes, this room was turned into a laboratory.
He jumped forward as the door bumped him from behind.
He heard a mumbled apology as someone he didn’t recognize ran past him into the frenzy of the room. Their back quickly disappeared into the mob of chaos. He slowly edged forward, breaking into the invisible barrier that separated the quiet school halls from the rush of the event. The noise surprised him, constant chatter, banging of metal, shuffling of papers, the occasional swearing. People bent over, decorating their white linens, testing their displays, and setting off mini fireworks for attention. Caught off guard, the terrarium wobbled in his grasp. His face paled as he tightened his grip.
Walking down the narrow walkway between tables, he squinted, hoping to find his table quickly. Each table was adorned with a simple metal strip, noting their name and grade. Even with thirty minutes to prepare, most tables were already full. He felt the other student’s gazes as he walked by, sizing up him and his project with one glance. He did the same.
His eyes widened in amazement. There were displays, dioramas, electricity models, magnetic pulls, and dissections. Projects and ideas he didn’t even know about jumped out at him.
Molly from fourth period science stood behind a shiny robot. Her smug smile grew as other kids gathered around her table. Her robot was simultaneously chopping vegetables, humming Mozart classics, and stirring the soup. She called it the chef-bot 3000.
Next to her, a boy he didn’t know, plugged in neon lights. What at first appeared as a gaudy display turned into an observation about the different light frequencies, and the increased growth of vegetables to different light colors.
Behind him, an explosion turned into a burst of laughter as flecks of pink and red confetti fell to the sky.
He sped up, anxious to find his spot. Insecurities chattered in his mind, blending into the sounds of the others, until it was hard to discern the difference between their voices and his internal dialogue. Personal accusations of imperfections followed him around the room.
His name finally jumped out, on the front table in the middle row, Frank Dodenbird- 11th grade. The permanent marker bled the words together, blending his last name into an indiscernible blob.
The beating of his heart drowned out the noise form the room. Placing his project down, he let out a deep sigh. He was here. His goofy grin reappeared, as he carefully tweaked the metal components in place, fluffed a trampled fern, and cleared the fog off the inner container.
Standing back, he admired his work. Even without the bells and whistles, or exploding confetti, he would be recognized.
His moment of silent appraisal disappeared with the swinging of the auditorium doors. A gasp ran through the room. Every head turned and followed Henry as he sauntered in. Parading in, the adoration of the other students clung to him, widening the smug smile. Polished to perfection, the freshly pressed uniform, and messy hair spoke volumes. Everything about him made a statement of cool indifferences. Sharp dimples flashed next to his perfect smile as he walked. Ignoring the swooning girls, giggling beneath their cupped palms, he charged down the aisles. With a simple nod, he acknowledged each person while searching for his name.
With ease, Henry slid behind the table next to him, flashing a sly smile, the kind that beguiles and warns at the same time. The point of his teeth was undetectable. Without looking real close, it was hard to determine the difference between him and any other human.
Frank mutely nodded and kept his head forward. He didn’t want to come across like one of the others. Peeking peripherally, he watched Henry set up his project.
In an overly dramatic production, Henry swore, grunted, and exclaimed as he put his project together. Silver tools gleamed under the florescent lights as they landed with a thump across the table. Wiping his brow, Henry stepped in front of Frank’s table to admire his handiwork.
“What do you think? Not too bad, eh?” With a laugh, Henry started to clean up before Frank could come up with a response.
Poised in the center of the table, stood Henry’s project- a polished monstrosity, surrounded by sparkling green foliage, rocked rubble, and tropical flowers. Frank listened patiently as Henry explained it. With his slick words, the typical project of a first grader transformed into the noble prize winning scientific achievement.
“I see someone had fun with their erector set,” Henry said, glancing at Frank’s project, stashing another screwdriver in his toolbox. As the tools cleared, he covered the table with pamphlets, and buttons.
Frank looked down, feeling the insult behind the words, reappraising himself under the cruel glare of competition. The metal hinges and beams of his work looked simple in comparison to the polished machine next to him.
Frank looked at his project, then back at Henry’s. His gawking ended as a group of girls came over, leaning suggestively toward him. The vamp tramps, he sighed, watching how quickly their school uniforms could change from modest and professional, to lewd with some minor alterations. Their voices trilled higher as one twisted her curls between her fingers. Frank watched in disbelief, wondering how a few words, delivered in a suggestive matter, could send two smart girls into a flurry of giggles. Henry didn’t seem to have the same opinion. Leaning over the edge of the table, his words disappeared under their squeals.
His eyes moved away from the girls and settled onto the project again. The monstrosity of metal drew him in. The gleaming surface shone with colors. Bright reds from the banners, soft white swirls from polishing, green from the plastic ferns, and a flickering of colors near the rim of the caldera. His stomach dropped as he peeked closer at the flickering lights.
The three o’clock bell sounded, announcing the official start of the event, and ending his inspection. The girls reluctantly walked away, their eyes lingering on Henry, as their hands made a final gesture.
The air in the room changed from casual to reserved. The background chatter halted, until a soft hum of electronics filled the silence. His head jerked forward at the microphone’s squeak.
Gathered in the front of the cafeteria the teachers waited. Mr. Weaver, Mr. Simons, Miss Jenkins and Mrs. Wilson stood together. In an attempt at solidarity, they wore the same outfits- crimson shirts underneath knee length white lab coats.
“Welcome science enthusiasts,” Mr. Simons croaked into the microphone, followed by the microphone’s squeal. After the room quieted their laughter, he continued. “Today is a special treat. This science fair has been a long standing tradition of our school, and the awards are highly sought after. Outside, we have been in war, fighting an unspoken battle to show our worthiness to the other species. A battle in which we have stood our ground, but I believe that we can win. With our brains, determination, and our skill, we can show what we are made of. That begins with you. Your projects, ideas, and solutions for sustainability, technology and advancement will force them to take notice. It is with great honor and anticipation that my colleagues and I will be walking around today.” He motioned to the others, who politely raised their clipboards.
“We look forward to seeing what you have for us.” With those words, the teachers began walking around. The noise escalated, and he felt his heart begin to race. It was a conundrum. He didn’t like being focused on as much as he didn’t want to be ignored.
Watching the teachers slowly exit the stage towards the far edge of the room, he figured he had about twenty five minutes before they would reach him. Twenty five long minutes to calm his heart and clear his mind.
“So, what is it?” Frank asked, walking around his table to take a closer look at Henry’s project.
“This is Mt Vesuvius,” Henry said with great aplomb, a smile spread across his face.
Frank waited for more of an explanation, but none came. Barely able to hold back his snicker, he turned back to his own. He watched Henry’s eyes darken as he moved away.
“It’s a volcano,” Henry explained, “it’s going to explode.” His hands waved out, exaggerating an explosion.
“That sounds great.” Frank smiled at the anger he could sense teeming beneath the surface. Apparently he could affect Henry as well.
“No, you don’t understand,” Henry said, slamming his fist on the table, scattering the buttons. “Look here,” he said putting his timer down and moving to the front. “This does this, this does that. These here, do this, and when I hit this button, they all go.” A sinister smile grew across his face, and his eyes darkened. “My ancestors were involved with the original eruption. This is my tribute to them, and what I have planned for the future. Mr. Simons was right about one thing. It is time for us to win that battle and show what we are made of.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He hesitantly rounded back around his table
“Don’t you want to make a difference? Don’t you want to show everyone what you’re made of? This is my chance. I don’t want to rot in their mediocracy,” Henry sneered in contempt as he pointed to the other kids. “Sarah over there, she thinks she’s so smart with her hydro-electric robotics. Roger has created a cure for the common cold. The common cold, he couldn’t even try to tackle something bigger. Why do we sit down and settle for this? I cannot stand this anymore. I refuse to be ignored any longer. I will make them notice us. I will make them notice me.”
“So you made a volcano? How do you expect to make a difference with that?”
“With this little device,” Henry picked up the gray timer he had slammed down.
“It’s more than it seems. With a touch of this button, the wires will connect and create a chain reaction. Quicker than you’d expect, it will blow, and my point will be made.”
“Isn’t all of that a little dangerous?” Frank asked, looking at the wires, the different lights, timers, and charges, trying to ignore the implications of his other words.
“No more dangerous than the real thing. This is a science experiment. We’re supposed to see what happens.”
Henry’s words were strange, almost calculated. The smooth words challenged him. Frank saw Henry’s eyes narrow at him, glaring with cruelty as his demeanor changed in an instant.
“This is a science fair, not an experiment.” As the words trailed out of his mouth, a pit opened and his stomach dropped. The water in his terrarium splashed as he rushed over to the volcano to determine what atrocities hid beneath the beauty of the design.
Strapped to the tips of the trees, under the rim of the volcano, built in to the model, charges were strategically placed. Wires carefully camouflaged underneath, imagining the explosion from the depths. Hidden shards of glass, wire, and pellets. This was more than a simple controlled eruption, this was a weapon. He looked deeper into the caldera.
Flash, flash, flash. He counted the pulsating rhythm. The pit in his stomach deepened with the familiar beat. Over twenty lights flashed at him with an even pace, like the ticking of a clock. Glancing to Henry’s timer, he saw numbers, flickering in sequence. His heart caught in his throat. It couldn’t be.
He looked blankly ahead at Henry, unable to form the words. Flustered, his words sputtered out. “But, the people, what is going to happen? With that much charge, someone could get hurt. How much did you put on there?” Frank hushed, running the calculations in his head.
“That’s the beauty of the experiment. I don’t know. In fifteen minutes, no, make that fourteen minutes, ten seconds, we’ll find out.”
Henry patted him on the shoulder and chuckled, the sharp edges of his teeth more obvious up close.
“Well, this was fun Frank, but I must go. I have been seen, and now no one will suspect me. Best of luck.”
“Best of luck? Wait, where are you going? You can’t just do this.”
“Frank, buddy, of course I can. I already have.”
“Mr. Simons was right. We are fighting a battle, but some of us are fighting a different one. Have you ever stopped to think about what we are fighting for? Why should the mediocre win, they never have before. I say we stop fighting to make ourselves something we are not. We are not considered second-rate for no reason. In here with the rest of you guys, I am shunned. But out there, with either the full bloods or humans, I stand a chance at greatness.”
“No,” Henry interrupted. “You can fight to fit in and blend into this non-worthy, sub group of species, or join me. Become what we should have always been.”
“I…” he stammered.
“That’s what I thought Frank, and that is why I am sorry. You saw the timer, don’t waste your time.” He walked down the main row to the exit.
Frank followed him as he stopped at the vamp tramp’s table near the door. Their giggles erupted above the crowds.
He was certain the disgust showed through his eyes. Could Henry do that, get away with hurting someone under the guise of a project. Could that work? Surely people would recognize the deception. One quick glance around at the fawning girl’s made him wonder.
“It’ll be fine. I won’t have to worry,” he mumbled. As long as the teachers took less than a couple of minutes at each table, they should be through his project and gone before the timer went off.
Then he saw it, as Mrs. Wilson rounded the corner into their row, and bent down to tie her shoe, she knocked the replicating bunny machine off the table’s edge. A harmless accident, that cut down the time he had before disaster. Mrs. Wilson shrieked and jumped onto the nearest chair, while the student patiently rounded up the frolicking bunnies.
Once the commotion settled down, Frank counted the remaining tables in his head. Assuming the same time at each table, the teachers would be at his table at the time of the explosion. The extra time he had counted on to exit the hall disappeared.
The room seemed to silken around him as his mind raced with questions and choices. Before he could focus, or make a decision, a soft voice broke his concentration.
“Frank? Frank?” Miss. Jenkins asked. “What do you have for us today?”
He looked up to see the four teachers smiling behind their raised clipboards. Mr. Wilson leaned over examining the different fauna in his container.
“Interesting choices of plants and wildlife, Frank. What made you think to combine those?”
Answers that he had rehearsed for weeks flew out of his mind. His teacher’s eyes softened, as he stammered for a response. Focused on the impending danger, everything else seemed pointless.
Behind Miss Jenkin’s smile, he saw the clock tick down. The same rhythm as his beating heart, the same as the tapping of her pencil, the same as Henry’s methodical winks at the end of the hall.
The sly smirk on Henry’s face was visible through his peripheral. An undeniable evil hid beneath the guise of polish and beauty. He started counting down.
Ten seconds, nine seconds, eight seconds.
Time had run out.
Pushing his table over, he jumped over the puddle of water, barely missing a lizard, and grabbed Henry’s project.
Cradling it to his chest, he ran towards the exit. Sweat dripped down his forehead, and the smooth metal cone slid in his bare hands. He felt the warmth of the charge, and heard to click of detonation before the screams. The rush of adrenaline masked the pain as his knees collided with the ground, and the metal shrapnel burned into his skin. His body absorbed the majority of the shock and explosion, hiding the true danger from the others.
The room was quiet, in collective shock.
Through his closed eyes, he heard the whispers and mocking. Henry’s slick voice carried over the others. “I don’t know what happened, I guess he didn’t want me to win.”
Too injured to speak or open his eyes, he listened to the audacity of those words in silent disgust.
Agreement mumbled throughout the room, as accusations flew and struck him in the heart.
“Hmmm, that wasn’t my expected outcome,” Henry said, kneeling to his side, careful to avoid the bloody pools. “Maybe next time,” his words trailed off through the creaking of the swinging door. Frank cringed, feeling the pain build within his arms and chest, and the cold overwhelm him. As silence closed its veil around him, his mind wondered, who would they remember as the monster?
Thanks for reading “The Giant Project” by Kirstin Pulioff in theContemporary Fantasy genre. To read the winners in the other genres, please click the links below:
Contemporary Fantasy – “The Giant Project” by Kirstin Pulioff
Horror – “The Only Safe Place” by Joshuo Osto
Historical – “Him” by S.R. Mallery
Paranormal Romance – “Music Box Dancer” by Julia Long
Romance – “The Personal Ad” by Ceci Giltenan
Young Adult – “Turning Point” by Momoko Oi